THE YELLOW SEA (HWANGHAE). Starring by Ha Jung-Woo, Kim Yun-seok. Directed by Na Hong-Jin. 140 minutes. Rated R 18+ (brutal bloody violence, some strong sexuality, nudity, and language).
Director Hong-jin Na has written and directed only two films, The Chaser and The Yellow Sea. The films belong to the action school of Korean film-making popular since the 1990s. Films like Old Boy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance made this genre of police and gangster thrillers popular and critically respectable. The Chaser screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
The films are complex in their presentation of characters, the law and the exercise of violence.
This film opens in the seemingly remote area between Korea, China and Russia, home for many migrants after the Korean war, the Cho-Sun-Jok. The inhabitants are not highly regarded, especially in Seoul where most of the action takes place. There is a lot of crime, gangs and bosses, killers for hire. They can be employed by seemingly respectable criminals in South Korea to handle their dirty work.
While this makes for interesting plots, though there is always a problem of who is working for whom, there is a grim perspective on life, often life being cheap, and difficult to find redeeming characteristics in the gallery of characters. The central character here is a cab driver in Yanji City whose wife has left for Korea and disappeared. He is an inveterate gambler and is hired to go to Seoul to assassinate a professor. This leads to tangles with underworld characters and, in something like the style of Charles Bronson action films of decades ago, this unlikely looking killer uses his wits to survive the increasing attempts on his life.
The film is quite long and becomes repetitive in its confrontations. But, what makes it difficult for some audiences, is the visual and action brutality in the assaults and killings, the close-up gashing (this is a film of blades not guns) and an atmosphere of crime, greed and betrayal that is not for the squeamish.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out December 8, 2012.